The State of Care report

This guest blog post is by Dr Russell Wills, Children’s Commissioner. Dr Wills introduces his newly published report the ‘State of Care’ and invites readers of the RSW blog to review the report, and to comment.

This week, I released my office’s first public report about Child, Youth and Family. The State of Care report summarises what we learnt from monitoring Child, Youth and Family and engaging directly with children in care between January 2014 and June 2015. I’m proud of the report, and pleased to be able to share it with the public.

I wanted to share it personally with readers of the Reimagining Social Work blog because I know you have a strong interest in the current and future direction of Child, Youth and Family. You are actively thinking about many of the key issues raised in the report, such as clarity of purpose and direction, child-centred practice, cultural capability, and workforce capacity and capability. I wanted to share some of our key findings directly with you, as key stakeholders committed to sharing best practice and improving the lives of children in care. I hope this report will make a useful contribution to your conversations about the future of Child, Youth and Family and the wider care and protection system.

Background to the State of Care report

My office has monitored Child, Youth and Family’s services to children since our inception, but this is the first time we have aggregated our findings and shared them publicly. In 2013 we refreshed our monitoring framework and decided to produce a public report that aggregates our findings and summarises what children told us. We wanted to bring a greater measure of transparency to our work and the work of Child, Youth and Family, and to help keep children’s voices central in decisions about their care.

Our findings and recommendations are intended to be constructive and give a ‘bird’s eye view’ of what is going well in CYF and where things need to be strengthened. We know that the majority of CYF staff are dedicated individuals who do a great job under the strain of immense workloads. Nothing in the report is intended as a criticism of them.

Below I summarise the report’s key findings, conclusions, and recommendations.

Child, Youth and Family’s practice is inconsistent

Child, Youth and Family has strong front-end systems and processes for investigating and making decisions about cases of potential abuse and neglect, which means it generally does well at keeping children safe from immediate harm. After these front-end decisions are made, however, CYF’s case management and quality of social work practice is highly inconsistent. We found a number of systemic issues recurring across the sites and residences we monitored, including:

  • Inconsistent local planning, leading to a lack of clear purpose and direction;
  • Insufficient priority being given to cultural capability, especially for mokopuna Māori and their whānau;
  • Partnerships and networks with external stakeholders in need of strengthening;
  • A lack of regular, high quality social work supervision.

The ability of CYF’s current workforce to address these issues is constrained in various ways: limited resources, high caseloads, the organisation’s current KPIs which focus on timeliness of front-end work and not on-going support of care placements, and the need to invest in training across the organisation to develop a workforce with the appropriate skillset. Issues regarding workforce capability, recruitment, training and retention were raised during almost every visit we undertook, and we believe these are behind much of the variable practice we have observed.

Child, Youth and Family was not sufficiently child-centred

Children have a set of clear and reasonable expectations of Child, Youth and Family. They expect:

  • To be told what to expect and what their rights are;
  • To be provided with high quality social workers and care givers;
  • To be supported to maintain relationships with their birth family/whānau;
  • To be given a voice in decisions about their own care.

Some children reported positive experiences with Child, Youth and Family, but others reported very poor experiences. Generally speaking, the longer a child spends in Child, Youth and Family care, the more likely they are to experience harmful consequences. The feedback we received from children suggests a system that is not centred on their needs, and that does not take into account the potential negative consequences of Child, Youth and Family’s actions and decisions on children.

We don’t know if children are better off as a result of state intervention

There is little reliable or easily accessible data available about the outcomes of children in the care system. In our view, Child, Youth and Family and MSD’s systems are not routinely measuring and recording the information that matters, and the integration of data between MSD and other government agencies is poor. Better collection and analysis of data is essential for Child, Youth and Family to improve its services and for the Government and the public to have confidence that Child, Youth and Family and other state agencies are improving outcomes for vulnerable children. We don’t have enough information to say conclusively whether children are better off as a result of state intervention, but the limited data we do have about health, education, and justice outcomes is concerning.

Alongside children’s immediate safety, Child, Youth and Family needs to focus on improving their outcomes

Our overall observation is that Child, Youth and Family has become oriented towards front-end processes for investigating and making decisions about cases of potential abuse and neglect, at the expense of on-going support for children in all types of care placements. This observation is supported by what children and other key stakeholders told us about their experiences with Child, Youth and Family, and consistent with the conclusions in the recent Workload and Casework Review undertaken by the Office of the Chief Social Worker within Child, Youth and Family.

The reasons for this focus on front-end services are complex and historical, and we have not attempted to analyse them in our report. Rather, we have focused on ways to support Child, Youth and Family to maintain its focus on initial safety, and to expand this to include the on-going support necessary to improve children’s outcomes in the long term. This will require a greater level of investment in children in all types of care placement.

Recommendations for the future

We made 53 recommendations to help Child, Youth and Family lift its performance and improve outcomes for children in our monitoring reports between January 2014 and June 2015. Some were directed at individual sites or residences, while others were changes Child, Youth and Family’s national office could make to improve policies and practice across multiple sites and residences.

For this report, we reviewed all our individual recommendations and developed a set of seven aggregated, future-oriented recommendations that we believe will help address shortcomings in the current system and improve children’s outcomes in future. We acknowledge that Child, Youth and Family can’t make all the necessary changes on its own. All the participants in the wider care and protection and youth justice systems need to work together much better to deliver effective, high quality services to vulnerable children.

Our aggregated recommendations, in brief, were:

  1. Set clear expectations about Child, Youth and Family’s core purpose and the outcomes it needs to achieve;
  2. Ensure Child, Youth and Family is fully child-centred in all its activities;
  3. Invest more in on-going support for children in all types of care placements;
  4. Address capacity and capability issues across the Child, Youth and Family workforce;
  5. Improve cultural capability across the organisation;
  6. Collect and analyse relevant data to drive improved outcomes for children; and
  7. Set clear expectations for other state agencies responsible for improving the outcomes of children in care.

The report, including more detail about each of these recommendations, is available at I hope it will generate some useful exchanges here on the Reimagining Social Work blog; I will certainly be checking in from time to time to follow the conversation.

14 replies on “The State of Care report”

I agree, it’s so important to highlight the experiences of children in the care system and develop ways of knowing what happens to them when they leave care. Our internationally low age of care exit means some young people end up literally dumped on their 17th birthday. It’s unconscionable that we don’t know what happens to them after that. If the state-as-guardian status is to be taken seriously then this needs urgent attention – what parent would behave like that?

In the bigger picture though, it seems the suck of resources into investigation and ‘front-end’ decision-making is leaving other areas bereft – not only for those ‘after’ the decision is made for removal (children in care) but also for those before the decision is made (children at home but with families struggling to care for them). I know, I know, I can hear you all saying two words: Children’s Teams. But it’s more than that. It’s the grinding poverty that a children’s team can’t fix. It’s the depression and its impacts on parenting that without intensive, in the home family support work, won’t be addressed. It’s the social isolation that leaves people without a sense of hope or community. And contributing to this, it’s the growing inequalities that drive up referrals to child protection systems around the world as societies become structured around ‘us’ and ‘them’. To be truly child centred means to ensure the whole policy landscape meets the needs of children and their parents. Is it time to take a hard look at what ‘prevention’ really means? And where is social work in this? Are we ‘us’ or ‘them’?

A Big Old White Butt (CC)

Institutional racism is at the heart of the ‘current state’ of child protection in Aotearoa New Zealand. It has been for more than thirty years. Aptly described by a rangatahi participant in my research who’d just been in a youth justice residence for 6 months, “you fullas are so dumb, y’all strut your stuff like the Emperors New Clothes…we just sit back laughing coz y’all just showing us your big old white butts.” Institutional racism is rife across all the ministries and some of the worst biased practice is aimed at women and Māori and if you are both you get a double dose. Let me tell you why, the bulk of notifications CYF receive are through referrals from Police resulting from family violence call-outs. And why is social work working well at the front end according to the ‘State of Care’ report yet the Casework and Workload Management review states that there just isn’t enough time, resources or social workers to carry out thorough social work.

Here’s my answer, social workers at the revolving CYF door largely rely upon Police assessment information gathered at family violence incidents. This results in risk-adverse practice of children being removed in the first instance (often unnecessarily) and into the care of the state. Then further assessment is undertaken ‘as and when’ time permits, to see if the children can be returned home. In my current research wahine Māori talked to me about being “microscopically scrutinised” in every aspect of her life because she is, Māori and, in a violent relationship. This is often by “inexperienced and culturally ignorant” CYF social workers. One participant described it as, “its like they (CYF) send interns in to do fine brain surgery.” All this is separate from whether a mother is actually a ‘fit’ parent or not. She still has to endure the process of not only protecting herself and her children, but also from the scrutiny and stigma she experiences from agencies and frontline workers.

These women/mothers are expected to be solely responsible for protecting their children. Thus, the responsibility of the perpetrator of the abuse is often not a factor in securing safety for children. Children are being removed from these women because as mothers, they have failed to protect their children from being exposed to family violence, when in fact it is the perpetrator who is compromising the safety of the children.

And whilst CYF is crying out for caregivers because of the rate children are being taken into care, they’re often only ‘screening’ caregivers before children are being placed with those caregivers. As an ex-state ward, I can tell you that the abuse in care is prolific and children do tell but it often falls on deaf ears. And if, children don’t tell it’s because they think they wont be believed or they fear consequences. This is more pronounced for Maori children who understand the insidious nature of racism right from the word go.

It’s institutional racism and biased practice that directly feeds Maori over-representation in all systems and when the Anton Blanks of this world describe this as “unconscious attitudes playing out” I just have to roll my eyeballs. It’s this understating and pretending the problem isn’t there that makes the current state of child protection in New Zealand the ‘neon signed’ train wreck it is. A train wreck that successfully transacts profitable brown units along a conveyor belt straight into the coffers of our adult prison system. And can we please get over the whole mythicising of ‘miracle’ system cures such as bicultural frameworks, cultural responsiveness and the family group conference, which just serves to keep us all in jobs.

Child protection is fundamentally monocultural, which means social workers by in large are only able to see through their own world view, the ‘dominant’ and ‘one right’ world view, against which all other ethnicities, including Maori are measured. Other biased practices that contribute to the over-representation of Maori children in care include predetermining FGC outcomes in favour of the social workers aspirations, approving social workers as culturally competent but who have no idea how to carry out whakapapa searches, it’s patch and dispatch, it’s Maori social workers getting the hard basket cases and who experience ‘brown burnout,’ it’s the intentional hiring of UK social workers over an experienced local Maori social worker, Pakeha occupying most of the management positions and not getting cultural supervision, it’s ‘one size fits all’ approaches that deny the development of Maori ways of working across CYF, and it’s ‘hollow words’ contained in more of the same ‘hollow policy’ and the constant reviews and failure to implement recommendations (i.e., Puao te ata tu 1986, Te Punga: Our Bicultural Strategy for the Nineties, 1994; Te Whanau o Waipareira Report, 1998; The Brown Report, 2000; Te Pounamu, 2001; and Workload and Casework Review: Qualitative Review of Social Worker Caseload, and not least the Casework and Workload Management, 2014).

A “big old white butt” blindingly so!

So we have moved not too far from the heady days when this report moved some mountains- and gave ammunition to those pushing for Puao te ata tu:
Dept of Social Welfare (1985). Institutional Racism in the Department of Social Welfare in Tamaki Makau Rau. Auckland NZ. [I have a PDF copy of this- known as the WARAG report, if anyone wants it]

That came from within…maybe it is time to ask why nobody is asking the social workers, especially Maori social workers, to suggest their solutions. And those many, many social workers who have left CYF because of burnout and feeling there is just not sufficient time and resources to do the work the children and families need. How good is the exit-interview process?

And Paora – you’ve made some brilliant points about the unintended consequences of referrals of children who are present in family violence incidents. Which I think is largely un-researched in a deliberate project? The experts on screening all agree that its not the screening that saves lives -it is what we do immediately after and over the months and years to follow.

So many issues in this report it is hard to know where to start. And there will be an outpouring of words in many fora. Some useful some not so. So here I will just stick to a couple of issues I am passionate about. And this doesn’t mean I don’t prioritise other matters. The report raises issues about preparedness for practice and supervision. In relation to the first issue- readiness for practice – this is a major concern for social work educators and we hope shortly to start some important research. The OCC report talks about social workers feeling unprepared with the knowledge and skills to do aspects of the work. Over time I feel that education and training has become much more risk focused – so it’s about screening and assessment. This is obviously important. But are we neglecting to educate practitioners to undertake long term goal directed work as a consequence ? And to address the horrors that Paora talks about in the comment above. These issues are worthy of much deeper scrutiny. But readiness to practice – or being prepared for the real work in practice like CYF isn’t just about inputs- skills training and curriculum that imparts knowledge. It’s also about the reception and induction that new graduates receive. Being treated like fresh troops at the frontline in a war zone doesn’t help. We need proper NQSW programmes ( and I know there are senior people in CYF who desperately want to do this) and we need them now. That might at least reduce the churn for families and the massive cost of attrition.
The second issue is supervision. We need a massive injection of proper education for supervision. And I don’t mean a one or two day supervision-by –numbers training that emphasises risk management. Proper assessed skill training. We have the capacity to do this. But right now some CYF social workers have been paying their own fees for postgrad study. There’s been some sign of improvement very recently but many more people need to have the opportunity to learn how to do high quality reflective supervision. And grow our capacity to offer cultural supervision. There are fanatic supervisors in CYF – they need to be champions for leading a massive overhaul of new graduate support and supervision for the long term. Every report I have ever read from around the world says these things are crucial. I wish I had more confidence that the responses to “The State of Care” would be evidence based and focused on support for the CYF social workers who must be feeling beleaguered, exhausted and dispirited right now. And for all our words they still get up on Monday morning and walk bravely in to another week of working with our children and families. And you know the really good ones probably feel the most pain.

Absolutely Liz. The real success story of the newly Qualified SW programme in the UK was the additional resource that went into ensuring that the supervisors and supervision of the newest graduates was the best it could be. Significant extra funding went into this aspect of the programme. However, the issue of high staff turnover is urgent and related – we want supervisors to have some depth of practice experience and not find themselves in supervisory roles with less than 2 years experience because they are the longest serving staff at that site. It’s no surprise that the best performing sites have experienced supervisors who have been able to provide the continuity and knowledge of the local community, have established relationships with other providers and a level of practice competency that allows them to support the learning of new graduates. Supported and staged learning about the specific field of practice, child protection work in CYF’s case, for new graduates has been linked to higher job satisfaction, better retention rates and importantly, faster and better acquisition of necessary knowledge and skills. CYF has gone some way towards providing this with its universal induction programme but too many new graduates are not able to take the time they need to do the learning because there is no protection of their workloads and the important embedding of this new knowledge is not adequately supported once they are back at site. The need to get serious about a protected graduate programme in CYF is urgent. When you are expected to ‘hit the ground running’ it’s too easy to lose sight of the detail and the bigger picture. There must be more resourcing to allow this and to allow more experienced social workers to work in ways that meet the needs of children and their families and whanau as they would like to.
Kia kaha to our CYF colleagues who must be feeling the stress of the not knowing – we are with you.

This is a good report. I appreciate the opportunity to comment on it. I like the ideas put forward for action and in particular feel happy to hear that CYF is performs well at the “front end” of child protection work – this of course depends on what we are measuring but it’s a helpful statement even if just to highlight how bad it is at the (proverbial?) “back-end.”
I held a position of permanency (back-end) worker for a short time in the mid 2000s. Another colleague and I worked with children in care who fit the description of those children we are hearing about now – the ones who were ‘lost’ in care, had drifted through numerous placements. To appoint this small team was a good, courageous local management decision and I think we did some good work. It was certainly the most challenging social work job I held with CYF and I loved it. Predictably, with the mounting pressure of immediate protection work we were quickly drawn back to the front line (front-end). Care work simply could not be a priority.
This report has identified many issues. I chose to comment on this issue because it is close to my heart, but also to offer my view about just how much commitment it takes at all levels to do care work well. It is a lot easier in our current structure/political environment to do the front-end work (ie to produce good reports like this one) than it is to do the back-end work (ie to follow through on recommendations and promises – that is, make a difference). That is where the challenge lies – harder than ever before but not impossible.

I cant help being cynical but is it really accidental that State of the Care report is now public at a time when a Ministerial Review panel is focusing on the Modernization of CYF? I suspect not!! The euphemistic title of the review is deliberately chosen I am sure to reflect the neo-liberal economic model that will emerge. It is not rocket science!! There must be growing concern for the future well-being of Tamariki and their whanau especially given the absence of a Maori voice within the panel. The most concerning factor seems to be the possibility that our Social Services will become increasingly privatized with an Agency or Agencies that are profit driven. The CEO from one such Agency visited Aotearoa this weekend
Change is to be embraced if it ensures progress and improved practice outcomes based on sound research and evidential analysis. Change should not be driven by a political ideology that speaks in financial terminology ie ROI for short term gains without due consideration of possible long term social consequences measured in years not months. I suspect the future of Social Work and Social Services in NZ has many many challenges ahead.

My perspective on the report is as a NZ-based social sector management consultant and researcher (who has recently completed a doctorate on the education of children in care in NZ) and university educator on evaluation research. I started my post qualifying social work career as a residential social worker before moving into statutory child welfare management which latterly included 2 years as the CYF National Manager Residences and Caregiver Services (2002-04). I have a particular professional interest in residential and foster care.

1. I very much welcome this report. In my view it is generally a very thorough and well-considered piece of work. It makes a timely and very useful contribution to the current Government and Expert Panel deliberations on statutory child welfare provision in NZ, and has created an opportunity for those outside of Government to publicly take part in debate on this important topic. This is a complicated report and one that needs to be read carefully. The themes and findings come from a synthesis of a variety of ‘business-as usual’ OCC activities crossing several parts of CYF, along with the collection and analysis of new data specifically for this report.

Like I suspect many others, I initially thought from the title and early media coverage that the report was solely about the care system. In fact the report specifically excludes any consideration of training and support provided to CYF foster carers. While these issues will be addressed in next year’s report (hopefully alongside recruitment, assessment, planning and supervision), given that the report’s primary finding is that CYF have focused on what OCC calls the ‘front end’ of CYF (we do need to find better terms to describe statutory social work with children in NZ) at the expense of care, there was an opportunity here for OCC to model the importance of foster care, and care more generally, by more fully including foster care in this inaugural State of Care report.

2. As many of us know, there have been many high profile reports on CYF and its predecessors across the 2000s, 1990s and 1980s, for example the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Māori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare in 1986, and the late Mick Brown’s 2000 Ministerial Review of the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services. Although you wouldn’t think it from the (almost ritualistic?) political and media reaction, in relation to this ‘front-end’, I am actually struggling to think of a more positive report on the work of the organisation! While I would suggest that some of this current ‘front end’ success has, until recently at least, been at the expense of an organisational focus on foster care and YSS placements, the report does capture some of the positive policy and practice that I have observed over recent years, and particularly so in relation to some of the youth justice residences.

3. However, the report also identifies a number of critically important concerns and particularly so in relation to foster care and the wider care system. While many western English-speaking jurisdictions are currently struggling with their care systems, in terms of quality and performance, I don’t think that there is much doubt that ours care system overall is amongst the worst.

4. However for me, there is sometimes a disconnect within the report between some of the language and the report’s own evidence (and the media interviews given). While some of the report is very hard-hitting and confronting, in other places it seems to fall back on euphemisms and conflates different issues. For example the phrase “CYF does not put children at the centre of everything it does’ whilst demonstrably true, is also used to encompass examples of actions and non-actions that on the basis of the information provided appear to breach the UNCROC, the CYF’89 Act, CYF policies and the most basic of professional standards!

5. While I appreciate that the State of Care report was maybe not the place for a discussion on context, it is important to recognise that our care system today is possibly better than it was 5 years ago, and is probably no worse than it was 10 years ago. It was also poor in the 1990s, 1980s and 1970s. In this respect the CYF Act ‘89 did little to help and arguable made the situation for those that still came into care even worse (while there are some associated regulations for those in residential care, the Act gives remarkably little attention to the state’s duties towards those in foster care. And of course there is the little matter of our enduring reluctance as a country to fully translate UNCROC into domestic legislation, and meaningfully embrace its principles. Therefore, while reaction to this report and its conclusions in relation to children in care will no doubt focus, initially at least, upon the incumbent senior managers within CYF, the issues run far deeper that the decisions of these particular individuals.

6. While I understand why the OCC report uses the term CYF rather than MSD, here I will mainly refer to MSD. CYF has not of course been a stand-alone organisation for a decade and since them most of its supporting functions have been stripped away. Since then it has been the two successive CEOs of MSD that have had overall responsibility for the operation of CYF, and it is they and their senior leadership teams that have had direct control over many of the non-operational functions that are identified in this report, and expenditure. In my experience, Ministers and Central Government Agencies are also heavily involved in the setting of departmental priorities – both planned and unplanned. In relation to children in care, this is a failure of the State, not just one service arm of one government department.


Part 1: Our Monitoring Findings.

a. This was a useful section although I was surprised by the statements on page 15 that “we only monitor certain aspects of CYF practice” and “in our formal monitoring role we do not assess the performance of CYF as a whole”? That suggests an internal quality control function rather than the external monitoring of a government agency?

b. The rating system used, as described in the report, is problematic. While in some ways I can understand why OCC has a ‘detrimental’ rating i.e. children would be better off if those that worked at the sites and residences stayed in bed and didn’t go to work and thus avoid “actively causing harm, negligent, ignoring, rejecting, undervaluing, and/or undermining practice” the effect is that this produces a 5 level rubric, rather than one with 4 levels, in which ‘developing’ will be seen by most as variously ‘the middle’, ‘neither good nor bad’ or satisfactory. Developing is not satisfactory! Furthermore, the differences in the descriptions between ‘developing’ and ‘well placed’ are quite marked, which is not helpful.

c. It was disappointing to see on page 19 that only one of the five sites in relation to YSS placements was deemed to have met the ‘well placed’ threshold and thus “provided consistently high quality oversight (my emphasis) to young people”. OCC also found examples where a “lack of active case management”, was “undermining the potential” of YSS placements and “compromising the needs of children”. However, I was also very concerned to read the basis for this judgement. For example, one of the well placed criteria here is that “Site leaders and social workers saw it as their explicit role to provide leadership, support and resources to support young people in YSS placements”. Is that really a characteristic of “high quality” practice? Surely this is an absolute minimum requirement? We need higher expectations than this. If we cannot clearly identify and articulate what quality (let alone high quality or transformational) social work fieldwork practice is in relation to children and young people in YSS placements, and in care more generally, how is the quality of care going ever going to be improved?

d. Reassuring to hear that no evidence was found of cruelty or torture in the residences, and that in this area we were meeting our international protocol obligations. However, important points are made here about the material conditions in, and maintenance of, residences (and I would add the design and size of these facilities too). That said, I was surprised that given international comparisons, there was no comment here on whether there was an over-reliance on physically secure residential facilities in New Zealand, and particular so in relation to care and protection?

e. I share the OCC concern about the significant variability in the number of reports of concern that result in a full investigation as ranging from 8% to 31%. However, as important as this issue is, from the evidence presented in the report, I wasn’t entirely clear that the 31% site was necessarily simply ‘over-investigating’ 25% of their reports (or alternatively that those at 8% were under-investigating 25%). Assessing risk is a complex issue and making changes to how social workers and teams assess risk needs to be handled very carefully. For me, this points to a need for a more detailed examination of these issues as there could be a wide range of reasons behind such variability, including possible variability in the referral thresholds of local police and education providers.

f. In terms of care placements not being well supported, I would agree with all of the points made here. For me this can be summarised with the following four points:

i. There needs to be clearer recognition that the primary purpose of CYF and relevant MSD senior managers is to improve outcomes for the children that the agency serves; if necessary legislation could even be changed to accommodate this. Such a change could have a profound effect on how the organisation sees itself and its relationship with Ministers, the central government agencies, and other government departments. Demonstrably improving such outcomes should be central to how the performance of CYF and relevant MSD senior managers is assessed.

ii. As well as building on work to date in strengthening cultural capability, CYF as an entity also needs to (re)learn and more clearly articulate what high quality purposeful whanau and non-whanau foster care CYF practice (as well as alternatives to care) actually is. As well as redesigning its systems to accommodate such a change, there also needs to be a particular focus upon developing high quality professional social work practice with children in care (some NGOs already have this but in my experience it is all too rare within CYF). In doing so, CYF also needs to support the (re-)building of the care sector and as well as NGO agencies and Iwi, also strengthen links with universities and other research, education and training providers, as well as international care organisations.

iii. I agree with the comments on workforce and skills development around care. MSD needs to invest in comprehensive care training for all, including senior managers, and specialist postgraduate care related training and qualifications for some. However, if this is to be done properly, it is a massive and complex task.

iv. In recruitment, whether for senior managers or foster carers, we need to discriminate much better between those with the necessary attributes to improve outcomes for children, and those who do not. The ‘cannon fodder’ approach to recruiting and retaining those across field work, residential care and foster care (including kin care) that I suspect some still take, needs to be continuously challenged.

g. In relation to the recommendation that CYF set clear expectations for other state agencies other government departments, I would have thought that this will not be for the want of CYF trying! CYF cannot control education health, justice, the police and the courts, or for that matter Treasury, State Services Commission or the Department for Prime Minster and Cabinet. These government agencies (as do Ministers) all make decisions that also impact upon the wellbeing of children in care.

Part 2: The voices and experiences of children

a. I applaud the inclusion of a section that seeks to capture the voices and experiences of children and young people in care.

b. However, the voices represented in the report are predominantly those in our secure residences and in particular those aged 14 to 16 in our youth justice residences. As 80%+ of those in youth justice residences are now on remand, their experiences are not necessarily typical of all of those in residential and foster care. Capturing the voices and experiences of children in secure residences is comparatively easy. However, while costly, they are a tiny proportion of those in care, and a wider range of voices and experiences is required in future years.

c. In the report there are limited comparisons made with other countries and those that are included are somewhat underplayed. For example the report states that “several overseas jurisdictions have successfully introduced independent advocacy for children in care”. In fact amongst western English-speaking countries this would be the norm. Who Cares Scotland, who as an organisation is referenced, was actually founded as long ago as 1978, and internationally it was not even the first? In England, there are also specialist advocacy services for those that have left care. Even closer to home, the CREATE Foundation in Australia was established 22 years ago! In this area we are decades behind most other western English speaking countries.

d. As well the need for an advocacy organisation for children in care, the important points on the age of leaving care, and the need for more comprehensive support for care leavers, are all well-made.

Part 3: Are Children Better off as a Result of State Intervention

a. An examination of the data and information that is, and is not, available on children in the care of the State, is a key strength of this report, and a whole section is given over to this topic (although I note that external research has been omitted). Critically, this section highlights that not only is there a paucity of aggregated outcome data in relation to those in the care of the State, there is also a very limited amount of aggregated output data too. However I have to say that I was surprised that the OCC was surprised about the limited CYF outcomes (and output) data. The OCC has now been monitoring CYF and its’ predecessor organisations for 36 years: I would have thought that regularly assessing such data would be necessary for it to fully perform its own monitoring role? The limited nature of available data on children in care was also apparent from the OCC’s own 2010 comprehensive 273 page report Children in Care: A Report into the Quality of Services Provided to Children in Care, by Dr Nicola Atwool.

b. As grim as it is, it is good to at last see some NCEA attainment data for children in care. Given the growing international research and practice literature in this area, and our comparative limited focus on the education of children of care in New Zealand, this particular finding should not be a surprise. However, in order to interpret this data and make a judgement on its trustworthiness, we do need MSD to explain their methodology (outside of Scandinavia, data matching exercises in relation to the education of children in care tend to be surprisingly incomplete). Presumably, MSD providing this single graph represents only a small selection of the data that they matched? For example, what about the percentage that gained university entrance (although this would of course draw attention to the nonsensical (legislation and policy-based) practice of school pupils being discharged from foster care before they finish school)?

c. It is surprising that the only NCEA data that has been released to OCC for this report, is from 2012 and that MSD have declined to release the data that they have for the subsequent two years. My fear would be that the 2013 and 2014 data either shows a drop in the percentage of school leavers in care gaining NCEA level two or higher, or a growth in the gap between those in care and others. Such data must be collected and disseminated as soon as possible if it is going to inform organisational strategic planning. However, while such risk-averse behaviour may appear to be nonsensical, the history of CYF and its predecessor organisations would perhaps suggest otherwise!

d. Significantly more analysis (and research) than is provided in this report is required before firm conclusions can be drawn on the extent to which poor educational (and health, and offending) outcomes can be attributed to MSD and the failings of the care (and education) system, rather than factors such as the long term effects of abuse and early deprivation, socio-economic background, and ethnicity-based disadvantage. However, although the old adage/cliché that “if you don’t count it, it doesn’t count” probably applies here, and I suspect that our outcomes for children in care are poorer than Australia, the UK, Canada and the United States, we just don’t know.

Conclusion: What Does this all Mean?

I don’t actually disagree with the thrust of the recommendations in as far as they go. However, they’ll also need to be some much broader child-centred changes, which may or may not come from the Expert Panel, before we will see the types of improvement that so many want to see, and those in the care of the state deserve.

Dr Iain Matheson

One page summary of doctoral thesis (Slipping Down Ladders and Climbing Up Snakes: The experiences of New Zealand University Students Formerly in Foster Care) is available from

Thank you all for your comments. We’ve had many positive comments via our website from caregivers, social workers and young people who have been in care, which give me confidence that we’ve described the current state of care accurately.

One of the points we make in the report is that Child, Youth and Family can’t make the changes that are needed on their own; they need our support. Let’s use this time to consider how we as academics and practitioners can improve outcomes for children and young people at risk and in care by improving how we work with CYF. There are no sides in this work, just colleagues.

Please encourage your colleagues and students to read the report, discuss it and share it.

Regards to all
Russell Wills

For a host of reasons I have not been able to contribute to the debate until now and it will still be a brief contribution to what is a very important debate for social work and more importantly for children and their families. I want to take up three critical issues.

First, there is, rightly, considerable attention paid to what happens to children while they are in care (more on that in a minute). In that focus we have lost two other equally critical considerations around the needs and interests of children. These children come from families, many of whom have had significant and substantial disadvantages and deprivation over a long period of time. In the course of our concern about the care experiences, we need too to give attention equally to what is being done to support and assist families so that children can be appropriately and adequately card for in their family of origin. Alongside this, what is being done to work with those families while the children are in care in order to alter the circumstances to which those children will return – for return is what most of them will want to do as we know from practice and research. The risk in the current debates is a child rescue approach in which it is assumed implicitly that removing children will fix it up. That never has worked and there is nothing to indicate that it will work now.

Following on from this is my second contribution – much of the current discussion suggests/asserts that it is a simple fixing matter, like mending a broken leg or patching a hole in the road; the work is done and all is fixed. Social work with families and children will never be that simple and practice, legislation, resourcing, management and supervision need to acknowledge that and work accordingly. Everywhere we look historically and at practice we are reminded of the demanding and complex work and should be very suspicious and very critical of simple solutions.

Third, the report emphasises the focus on assessment and criticises the lack of ongoing intervention and support for children in care. goodness knows how our colleagues in CYF are feeling in the light of this criticism – after all they have been doing the work (well according to the report) which the political, media and organisational imperatives pushed them to do. the major fault lies in the neoliberal political and managerial approach with its focus on narrow outputs, narrowly defined and reduced to simple measurement. It is rather cruel and ironic to criticise the staff for not doing the work which was not prioritised – and that prioritisation reflects much wider issues than poor management. It is the result of the pervasive impact of neoliberal managerial and political practices. If we want good effective intervention for our most vulnerable children, then this needs to be prioritised and resourced – the modernisation report makes clear the inadequate resourcing of CYF. While I am on this, that resourcing both for CYF and for the ngo sector needs to be sustained – if we are really serious about change – and not subject to constantly changing management and political whims, as it has been over the last 25 years.

One final reflection – as others have noted, there is a very real danger that this report will be used politically to drive/legitimise the political agenda to downgrade CYF, an agenda which has been clear since the appointment of the badly described ‘independent expert’ panel. Let’s be very clear – state care of children (and the support of their families and the work to support families to care for their children) requires a well resourced, well supported, highly skilled staff within a core government agency- the children and their families deserve nothing less. Ngos can complement that but they cannot be expected to do that core work – and there is no role for the private sector. Ministers are very quick to offload responsibility onto the agency and the staff – it is well past time that they accepted their responsibility and acted on it.

Good to see / hear the debate about this rising. As Neil indicates, a key question is how this report may be used to justify pending ‘reforms’. And … as Mike points out, it is more than a little rich to blame social workers for adopting a risk averse front end practice focus that has detracted from care services – this is, after all, the result of policy and practice developed by their managerial ( and more importantly their ‘political’) masters.

Clearly care practice needs to be improved. The question of how is the important one … and there is little or no reason to believe that some form of quasi privatization will be a more effective.

We seems to be missing a piece in all of this. We talk about early preventative work with high needs families and seem to increasingly associate this with the NGO sector, evidence – based programs, children’s teams? We also talk about careful ‘child-centered’ (?) assessment and getting it right in terms of initial safety. And we talk about the neglect of children in care

What we don’t seem to be getting a grip of is social work with ‘children / family / children in the context of family’ in situations of risk and need. This is arguably the challenging bread and butter of child protection social work: – what is wrong / what is happening / who needs to be involved /how can change be supported/ how do we build safety /what resources are required / how do we know it is working: how do we build a culture that supports quality practice intervention with ‘children / family / children in family?

This is the challenge for effective child protection social work. As people say, at ain’t easy but it can be done – is done in places.

At present we have a beginning and an end ( and I acknowledge that ‘care’ is never simply and end) but, good people , we have no apparent focus on the middle – what we do in between assessment and care proceedings – and what we do for family reunification post emergency action. Yes … time frame it more tightly ( don’t box it it with complete time-frame rigidity) but let’s get the intervention part of the puzzle sorted. Early permanency and out of family foster care is the ‘simple’ solution … it is not, however, the right one – ethically or morally. As Russell suggests we are all in this together – however I think it is important to remember the reality – as Emily and Paora point out – that we all live in a society that is increasingly divided by class and race.

And … by the way … if we are to get all three bits right – assessment / intervention / care … it might cost money.


[…] We don’t know if children are better off as a result of state intervention There is little reliable or easily accessible data available about the outcomes of children in the care system. In our view, Child, Youth and Family and MSD’s systems are not routinely measuring and recording the information that matters, and the integration of data between MSD and other government agencies is poor. Better collection and analysis of data is essential for Child, Youth and Family to improve its services and for the Government and the public to have confidence that Child, Youth and Family and other state agencies are improving outcomes for vulnerable children. We don’t have enough information to say conclusively whether children are better off as a result of state intervention, but the limited data we do have about health, education, and justice outcomes is concerning. ( […]

[…] CYFs and associated Agencies have a history of disrespectful behavior towards whānau and of being dismissive of whānau input into the placement of tamariki. Furthermore it has been well documented that Māori children are placed into contexts by the Government agencies where their needs remain largely unmet because the legislation, policies and interventions lack cultural context or appropriateness. The previous Children’s Commissioner provided clear evidence that CYFs does not provide for the needs of the children that they remove and that there is little evidence that supports the current, and proposed model is actually working as an intervention process. In providing a summary of the ‘State of Care’ report he writes: “We don’t know if children are better off as a result of state intervention There is little reliable or easily accessible data available about the outcomes of children in the care system. In our view, Child, Youth and Family and MSD’s systems are not routinely measuring and recording the information that matters, and the integration of data between MSD and other government agencies is poor. Better collection and analysis of data is essential for Child, Youth and Family to improve its services and for the Government and the public to have confidence that Child, Youth and Family and other state agencies are improving outcomes for vulnerable children. We don’t have enough information to say conclusively whether children are better off as a result of state intervention, but the limited data we do have about health, education, and justice outcomes is concerning.” ( […]

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